What This Cruel War Was Over: Slavery and the Civil War
In this activity students will examine how attitudes towards slavery and the Civil War changed between 1860 and 1865. What began in the minds of President Lincoln and most northerners as a war to preserve the union changed, over the course of the war, into a war to free the slaves. This transformation occurred in large part because of the actions of enslaved and free African Americans themselves. Students will create a historical marker, based on historical evidence, that addresses the question: "What was the Civil War fought over?"
Students will trace how attitudes toward slavery and the Civil War changed between 1860 and 1865 as slaves fled to the Union, as northern soldiers viewed slavery firsthand while fighting in the South, and after Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.
Students will create a historical marker that describes why the Civil War was fought and compare it to earlier historical markers that obscure or present alternative views of the reasons the war was fought.
Step 1: Hand out copies or project image of "A Monument Marks the Site of Lee's Surrender." Choose someone to read aloud the description and someone else to read aloud the marker text. With the whole group, write on the board the following prompts and then discuss the answers with the class:
Key vocabulary words and phrases that convey meaning and point of view
(Possible responses: heroic struggle, principles, surrendered, unconquered in spirit)
Who is included in this historical marker and who is left out?
What does the marker say about what the Civil War was fought over?
Step 2: Tell students that they will each be writing a new historical marker that addresses the question: "What was the Civil War fought over?" and is based on historical evidence.
Step 3: Divide students into groups. Ideally, each group will have 6 students; if not students will have to double up to make sure each document is analyzed. Hand out document sets to each table. Each person should select one document from the set to examine using the Sources worksheet. (Make sure that every document in each set is chosen by someone). After students have individually read and analyzed their documents, they should present a summary of the document to the rest of their small group. To build a synthesis of evidence, students should fill out the remaining source blocks on the worksheet as others present their documents.
Step 4: As a whole class, discuss the document set by using these prompts:
What strikes you?
What surprises or puzzles you?
What patterns do you see?
Step 5: Hand out the Historical Marker worksheet. Working individually, each person should write a new historical marker for the Appomattox Courthouse. Then they should explain the evidence they used for their interpretation of the question: "What was the Civil War fought over?"
Step 6: Lead a shareout of the 3-4 historical markers. The shareout discussion should include:
What role did runaway slaves play in the Civil War?
What difference did it make whether the North's war aim was Union or freedom?
American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning
Rights | Copyright American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
Item Type | Teaching Activity
Cite This document | American Social History Project/Center for Media and Learning, “What This Cruel War Was Over: Slavery and the Civil War,” SHEC: Resources for Teachers, accessed October 6, 2022, https://shec.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/1432.